Before we look at what causes gallstones, let us quickly understand what gallstones are in the first place.
Gallstones are tiny stones that develop when bile hardens in your gallbladder. The stones can vary in size, from as small as specks of sand to as large as golf balls. Also, depending on your condition, gallbladder stones come in many tiny pieces, as one large stone, or a bit of both.
Bile, made up of fats, water, proteins, salts, bilirubin and cholesterol, is stored in your gallbladder until it is needed to help with digesting fats. During digestion, the gallbladder contracts and releases bile through the common bile duct into the small intestine.
How do you get gallstones?
At times, there may be an imbalance in the level of cholesterol or bilirubin in your bile. This leads to two types of gallstones.
Cholesterol stones are responsible for about 80% of gallbladder attacks. Experts believe that the stones form when:
- there is too much cholesterol in your bile,
- not enough bile salts, or
- your gallbladder does not empty out often enough.
Over time, the cholesterol hardens and forms yellow-green colored gallstones.
Pigment stones are small dark stones that form when there is too much bilirubin in your bile.
The most common reasons for your liver overproducing bilirubin are:
- biliary tract infections,
- liver cirrhosis, or
- hereditary disorders in the blood.
Are there any other gallstones causes?
The precise reasons why these imbalances in your bile occur are still unknown, so the usual causes of gallstones are still quite hazy. However, doctors have identified certain factors that contribute to the disease.
If someone in your family has gallstones, then you are at risk too. Also, people that naturally have high cholesterol levels, such as American Indians, are at greater risk of developing gallstones. In fact, the majority of gallstone cases in the United States involve American Indians.
Women are twice as likely to get gallstones. As a result of birth control pills, hormone replacement therapy, or pregnancy, excess estrogen is produced. This reduces your gallbladder function and causes cholesterol to accumulate in your bile, which ultimately leads to gallstones.
If you are just slightly overweight, you have an increased risk. Weight gain causes your body to produce fewer bile salts and more cholesterol. As your cholesterol levels rise, it causes your gallbladder function to slow down, which leads to gallstones.
On the other hand, rapid weight loss from crash diets can also increase your risks. As your body starts to metabolize fat, it causes your liver to release excess cholesterol into your gallbladder. And as you know by now, high cholesterol in your bile often leads to gallstones.
Men and women over the age of 40 are at greater risk. As we age, our bodies generally release more cholesterol into the bile, where it hardens and forms the stones.
Ironically, cholesterol-lowering medications may be a cause of gallstones. These medications encourage your body to release cholesterol from your blood into the bile, causing an imbalance and stone formation.
So you can see, there are many direct and indirect causes of the disease. By knowing your risks, you’ll be able to find the ideal treatment for gallstones.